City Services Not Improved Yet? Call Yer Political Machine! (and good luck)
By the time many of you have read this, the election season may already have ended. For you, it is too late, so clip and save till next year. For others, please read on and then hurry to the polls.
The issues have never been clearer. In fact, the issues get clearer every year. Your governments, (there are oh so many!) are taking advantage of you. If you live in NYC or another metropolitan giant, the local government budget is larger than that of many states and countries. If you live in the prominent suburbs of these very same cities, around here in the counties of Westchester, Nassau, Suffolk and Bergen for instance, the budgets are often larger than those of small cities.
With size comes carelessness and neglect. Purchasing decisions have greater impact. Hiring choices affect the work lives of considerable bureaucracies covering multitudes of offices. Decisions over capital construction and maintenance ultimately concern thousands of users, employees, taxpayers and visitors. But with so much at stake, we have invested so little in the process of selecting decision-makers and leaders in the various villages, towns, cities and counties and in and among the states.
In the northeast generally, the process is integrated with a binary political system where choices of candidates for primary and general elections are entrusted to two major entities; Republican and Democratic, affiliated with larger national organizations. Alternatives are rare. While New York State is more tolerant of third or forth parties than other states, it still is a considerable challenge anywhere in the state from Hauppauge to Horseheads to gain real traction against the binary two in terms of funding, organization and benefits of incumbency.
Regional demographics and national political sea-changes, such as the Progressive period, FDR’s New Deal, the Goldwater (from a Republican perspective) disaster, Watergate and the Reagan realignment, have made this into a generally leftist Democratic stronghold, with stubborn outposts of rightist Republican success in certain (but no longer all) suburbs, and exurban and rural areas. These patterns have repeated commonly throughout heavily populated regions of the Northeast, Pacific west and Northwest and occasionally throughout the South, the Midwest and the remainder of the nation.
For those of us living in Westchester, the second wealthiest county in the nation in terms of median income per person (though only 47th wealthiest in sum total, likely due to its relatively small population of 973,000), what quality of life has this political system wrought? A mixed bag for sure.
Considerable wealth in Rye, Pound Ridge, Scarsdale, Chappaqua and other zip codes in the middle and north of the county has brought superior services, nation-leading educational systems and pleasingly amenable, almost pastoral Main Street business districts. The cities, ranked in term of size, Yonkers, New Rochelle, Mount Vernon and White Plains, the mega-township of Greenburgh (if it were a city, its population of 88,000 would make it the second largest) and some smaller villages act suburban in location only; in terms of issues of crowding, population growth, delivery of public services, and transportation, they are more like regional urban centers.
Democratic machines predominate. In White Plains, no Republican has served on its Common Council for more than a decade (apart from the fortuitous succession of an amiable Republican mayor years back). So ubiquitous is Democratic indoctrination, that a local White Plains paper (not warranting any citation here), after noting an unusual challenge of a single Republican to six Democratic officeholders, could manage only to thank Anne Marie Encarnacao for her pluck and then endorse again six incumbents so that they could finish the good works that they have just begun (sic) (emphasis, exclamation, the author’s). Mount Vernon has suffered the benighted leadership of a Democratic kleptocracy for decades (though there may be a reprieve this week!). The only recent flash of Republican life occurred two years ago when a Democrat council member crossed party lines and endorsed Rob Astorino for re-election as county executive.
Yonkers Republicans presently enjoy a one-vote majority on its council, but that condition is always at risk of revisions owing to the fractious state of the city and its political organizations. Its mayor (as well as the county’s District Attorney) is a Republican apostate, having flipped parties rather clamorously in 2007 ((I)ssues of the Republicans in Washington have been destroying the Republican Party”) though it is not apparent how his present Democratic-ness has influenced his tenure.
New Rochelle presents a pathetic example of Republican party organizational woe, personal ambition and private greed. After decades of generally conservative political control, interspersed with alternating terms of Democratic and Republican mayoralties, the GOP was essentially banished from city hall in 1991. The mayoralty and a tenuous council majority was swept from office and given up to a suffocating Democratic party machine that regulates city finances and management, and directs zoning and planning board appointments and membership of boards of assessment review, civil service, historical landmark review, human rights, industrial development (precisely where is all this newly-incubated industry located in New Rochelle city?) municipal arts and its youth bureau. In an informal manner, the party apparatus has accreted its dominant status by assigning candidacies for the nominally independent library board and exploiting PTA and Federation of United School Employees (FUSE!) teachers union contacts to control the legally separate New Rochelle Board of Education.
And where does the Republican loyal opposition fit into all of this? Well, fit is not the right word. In fact, Republican influence has withered to essentially, no actually, less than, zero. Of seven council seats, a seriously conservative Republican tenuously holds one. Vigorously and assiduously sticking up for the small property and business owner. Regularly on the lookout for waste in personnel assignments and material supplies. Constantly arguing for improved systems of police patrol and defense against fires and threats to public health.
The other, a crony capitalist of the first order: Type; novum genus Rochelle. A downtown purveyor of sumptuously and inexplicably priced baubles and jewels. So slavishly devoted to customer service that he has been quoted as saying he couldn’t act too Republican and fiscally conservative for fear of antagonizing his leftish (although reliably capitalistic) clientele from the city’s leafy Scarsdale/Mamaroneck bordering northern environs. So bereft of idealism or even a trace of civics class-idealism that he will rely almost exclusively on the guiding gusts of city council majority sentiment when voting; likely any majority will do, Democratic, Republican, right, left, socialist or Royalist. According to one regular council observer, a regular contributor to the pages of the Westchester Guardian, he has been heard speaking for himself (and in this one case, the entire board) only once recently, when he had to take the place of our usually loquacious but lately laryngitic young mayor Bramson.
But in every regard, Republicans are absent from the city fabric. Through luck and reference to a dynamically attractive county executive, the locality sends two Republicans to the county board: in the 10th, a bold and principled fiscal and (like it or not and for what its worth!) social conservative; in the 11th, an ardent and endlessly covetous trimmer and climber not especially concerned with societal improvement and the economic-betterment of the citizenry, but openly misty-eyed and Utopian in quest of a suspired judgeship. But in political, civic and even charitable and ordinary non-governmental organization (NGO) participation and leadership, GOPrs are rare as 1909 S-VDB pennies.
Sure, some guy or gal who once voted for a Republican as a finals and fumes-addled student in Kansas or somewhere is trotted out at every election to show how inclusive and open-minded one Democrat, leftist or another is.
But wouldn’t a Democrat raised on the ideals of Roosevelt, Kennedy and McCarthy (Eugene, that is) appreciate the intellectual contributions of just a small and reasonable complement of Republicans to serve in local, state and federal office? Why all the anti-GOP animus in New York and throughout the northeast? One can understand how pronouncements by South Dakota’s Congressional delegation of Republicans (and Democrats for that matter!) concerning economics and culture to state flax growers might grate on metropolitan ears. Coastal, Eastern concerns certainly command their own biases. But what ever happened to canons of humanity and fairness? And what ever became of bi-partisanship?
I accept that it might be difficult to celebrate bipartisanship, even play at it with real, live board pieces when the opposition is non-existent (White Plains) or seems to be in hiding, afraid of being found out and being taken for (or is it mistaken for?) Republican (New Rochelle), or simply extinct (Mount Vernon). But wouldn’t the reanimation of a legitimate opposing party or confederacy (other than a mere primary faction) contribute mightily to the marketplace of ideas. In a time of; budget constraints in local, state and federal government, questions of Common Core standardization and dreamed-of individuation of education theory; effective but humane approaches to law enforcement and; reliable national defense and border security, would it be worth the discrete cost in political control to the majority party (usually, though not exclusively, Democrat) isn’t the public welfare worth a fractional cost in political power?
And how come one hears the media and punditocracy cry for bi-partisanship only where and when Republicans are in control in the United States Senate and Congress, the state capitals or the rare municipal legislative chamber and mayoralty? Where Democrats dominate like throughout most of the northeast, why is partisanship to be accommodated? Why is it not worthy of censure there?
With the voting concluded or soon to be, the smoking and muddied remains of the electoral battlefield should be worth the attentions of the citizenry of the cities, towns and villages. Those not consumed with the latest travails of our Mets, Giants or favored fantasy sports franchises should take a look at the results. Have any incumbents lost? Has any machine been displaced? Are any careerist bureaucrats (not deserving of Civil Service or union protection) or family, friends and hangers-on in danger of losing their job through loss of office by a political patron (never mind notions of vocational competence)?
Hey residents of Mount Vernon! Any chance of getting Memorial Field completed after thirty years of incompetence, irresolution and not a little bit of corruption in the next five years? And you in White Plains; you happy with the proliferation of bars, pop-up like retailers and aggressive ticket summonsing along Mamaroneck Avenue? In New Rochelle, can we expect something new from another unquestioning council membership, newly or identically constituted?
And lest one think the author’s bare Republican ties are obstructing his thinking; you in Eastchester and Harrison, homes to political establishments more akin to Soviet-era Politburo machinations than the cogitations of Lincoln-era Springfield, Illinois; are you citizen-ratepayers content with the dizzying ascent of real property taxes over the past 20 years or so of GOP predominance?
Is the political system working in your local government? The next time you are mugged by civic reality; the explosion of taxes and fees, and water and utility billing (and the incessant growth of gross receipts taxes and other add-on by such private suppliers), instead of calling your incessant officeholder who hasn’t yet done anything to curb the inflation of living and working expenses, perhaps you should find yourself an unruly claque of Tea Party-type rabble-rousers to take up your cause.
Do you think that the incumbent who owes his existence to the feeding of a local political contraption will risk his economic well being by doing anything, new or old, which could displease his patrons? Why now? And why for little you?